Holtrop’s Hypothesis (II) – Or Some Questions About: Philip C. Holtrop’s The Bolsec Controversy on Predestination, From 1551 to 1555

8. What does Oberman say Holtrop is up to?

In his “Foreword” Oberman writes, “This study is at once courageous and significant. It is courageous because Philip Holtrop brings an ‘ugly Calvin’ out of the closet….” (p. xvii). (That was not among the credits Holtrop awards himself, but it is a, if not the, dominant theme, and plays well in Peoria.)

Besides, it’s “courageous” too! But what an amazing accolade! Is Oberman, like Holtrop, actually unaware that bringing an “ugly Calvin” out of closets has been something of a thriving industry over several centuries, beginning with Bolsec? The late J.T. McNeill of Union Seminary, New York, often bethought with Ford Lewis Battles one of the deans of Calvin studies in our time, writes in his “Foreword” to Richard Stauffer’s The Humanness Of Calvin, “Calvin has been so industriously defamed that many on the fringe of the educated world think of him primarily with a certain abhorrence” (p. 10). Industriously defamed! In what closet was that hidden from Holtrop and Oberman? Emile Doumergue traces it in Volume 6 of his biography; so does Stauffer in the study already mentioned, translated in 1971 from the French edition of 1964. Stauffer lists but seven of the leading “defamers,” dating back across the centuries to Bolsec, and joined now, according to Oberman, by Holtrop in ‘93, who claims, legitimately enough, to stand in the line of Bouwsma, 1988. The closet out of which Holtrop drags an “ugly” Calvin has been a main thoroughfare for a long, long time!

Oberman adds that Holtrop “documents” Calvin’s ugliness by un-closeting, “with obvious inner trepidation” [doesn’t he mean, “with ill-concealed relish”?] “a Calvin bent on killing” (xvii, xviii). Tis happily true that Calvinist “saints” have not flinched from “killing” when tyranny stood in the way, but why should Calvin think a Bolsec worth that much trouble? Just to provide Holtrop with a thesis topic? He destroyed him theologically, after all, in about an hour, one afternoon. Calvin did not go in for lamination.



 9. We are led to wonder, however: Just what “documentation” does Holtrop adduce to support his assertion that Calvin was “bent on killing” Bolsec?

“The best evidence is,” Holtrop says, “that Calvin, Beza and others wanted to kill Jerome to get him out of the way and thus to ‘resolve’ the social tensions in 1551” (p. 9; this “best evidence” is developed on pages 291–293).

Holtrop’s “documentation” is neither “evidence” nor “best.” Space limits us only to illustration. Example: he appeals to a well-known Calvin letter of 1546 to the effect that if Servetus comes to Geneva he will not leave it alive. Holtrop infers, if Servetus then surely Bolsec! Except that Servetus was a noted heretic, wanted by Catholic and Protestant alike for crisping at the stake. What carry-over is there to a noisy ex-monk swimming out of his theological depth? Holtrop supplies none.

Example: Holtrop repeatedly appeals to a Calvin letter written to one, Madame de Cany, which has puzzled many biographers. It is undated but assigned variously to some time in 1552. What is Calvin saying? He is writing about someone he does not name. And he says, “I assure you, Madame, that if he had not escaped I would have been duty-bound to have him burned at the stake.” Escaped? Did Bolsec “escape,” or was he booted out?

Holtrop: “It would seem that the only candidate for this dubious honor was Bolsec.” Inventive, no doubt, but hardly “evidence.” What “seems” like “evidence” to Holtrop, does not seem so to the French compiler/editor of Calvin’s letters, Jules Bonnet (English trans. by M.R. Gilchrist), nor to the German translator/editor of Calvin’s letters, Rudolf Schwarz, Johannes Calvins Lebenswerk in Seinen Briefen, a three volume source missing from Holtrop’s extensive bibliography. Bonnet mentions three Geneva trouble-makers, Gentili, Servetus and Bolsec, only to say that none of these “solves the mystery which attaches to the person designated in the letter” (Vol. II, 238). Schwarz says, “auf Bolsec wird man nicht shliessen durfen” (Vol. II, p. 618). “Best evidence”? The likes of this deterred Oberman from commending the scissors?

The rest of the “best” is no better. Bolsec’s blood was not on Calvin’s menu, not even to validate a Holtrop Hypothesis.

10. Speaking of “evidence,” what about the Calvin/Bullinger letter already noted?

It’s “best evidence” all right, but for Holtrop on the wrong side. Holtrop uses Calvin letters only if they agree with his Hypothesis.

Recall: 1) Holtrop: Calvin was bent on killing Bolsed 2) Calvin: slanderers say so, the foolish believe them, but such was not my design. At stake: the survival of the Holtrop Hypothesis. The choice, then: an “ugly” Calvin, or a “foolish” Holtrop.

We come now to the crucial research question: What happens when undeniable evidence turns up which rejects the researcher’s hypothesis?

Does the researcher 1) honor the evidence and surrender his hypothesis? OR 2) try to tamper with the evidence, presumably (but not really) to save his hypothesis? It’s a telling test, one on which sound research theory takes a hard line. In true research, the evidence shapes the ultimate theory. In bogus research, the theorist obliges the evidence to knuckle under somehow, but then the end result is worthless. It becomes a portrait of the researcher, not of the subject under research. Usually, as here, a poor exchange.

What happens? This: Holtrop will assay to chart a “new” course in Reformed studies by making out the founder of the Reformed tradition to be deliberately careless with the truth! Small wonder that he can claim to be working “virginal” soil which no one, to the “best of my knowledge” has ploughed before. Who would undertake so fantastic an exercise in absurdity: John Calvin…Liar!

It fits this thesis, after a fashion, because portraying an “ugly” Calvin is one of the unannounced objectives. And why not an ugliness with respect to truth? So, “Calvin lies!” does fall, as Hamlet says, “trippingly from the tongue.”

Like this: “Calvin was selective in what he wrote to Bullinger—and he was not beyond distorting and exaggerating” (p. 213). A little vague, so this: “We see repeatedly, Calvin tried to speak ‘moderately’ to Bullinger (or out of one side of his mouth)” (p. 293). Ah, “one side of his mouth”! But how about “both sides”? Well, that too: “Calvin speaks out of both sides of his mouth” (p. 320, fn 190). In commenting on the documents of the trial, Holtrop: “When we study the Calvini Opera, we cannot help concluding that Calvin was involved in a power play at this point, and that he spoke out of both sides of his mouth” (p. 606). Calvin “seems to be ‘fraudulent’ in his own statements” sent to Basle re Bolsec; followed with, “what he writes is blatantly untrue” (p. 312, fn 28). And so on….In short, Calvin’s letter to Bullinger has no standing as “documentation.” Calvin lies to suit the occasion.

The shambles which such disrespect for “evidence” makes of a presumably “scholarly” project will be immediately apparent to those who care about the ethics of investigation. Even simple logic rejects such cavalier dismissal of the Bullinger letter. Just suppose that Calvin could have been convicted of habitual prevarication, not by reiterated assertion but in cold print, what would that prove about the particular denial re: Bolsec to Bullinger? Nothing! Except for those who “reason” like Holtrop, you can’t logically get from the general premise “Calvin frequently lies” to the particular conclusion, “Calvin lies in this instance!” Rather elementary, really.

11. We wonder: Does Holtrop’s handling of the Calvin/Bullinger letter set the pattern for the whole Holtrop Hypothesis?

It certainly does! You already know how. Recall: 1) Calvin says that the root of his enunciation of the doctrine of predestination is the Bible. But, 2) Holtrop says, “The emerging view of predestination cannot be fathomed apart from the pressures and history in which it was formulated” (p. 47), or “These circumstances largely determined the formations of the predestination doctrine—to say nothing of the fortunes of Jerome” (p. 757). Apart from the fact that we have never seen what that new “formation of the predestination doctrine” was, Holtrop is obviously charging Calvin with lying as to his Source. He knows: it’s not the Bible but the circumstances!

12. And that raises an irresistible question: How does Holtrop deal, then, with Calvin’s very clear exegetical exposition of the doctrine of predestination?

Answer: He ducks, just as he ducked the Bullinger letter. Only in this case it won’t do to say Calvin lies! There are some charges no one will believe. So we get this:

“The knowledgeable reader might say, ‘Why do you omit—largely—some of the most important predestination writings of Calvin and Beza from 1551 to 1555?’”

The “knowledgeable reader” is merely saying, in effect, that there is prime “documentation” for tracing the source of Calvin’s doctrine of predestination to the Bible. And it refutes Holtrop’s claim for the governing influence of circumstances. What is he doing with it?

Note carefully Holtrop’s lame answer: “We are studying the Bolsec controversy, not primarily the early developments of Reformed orthodoxy…” (pp. 11–12).

But that won’t fly, because: 1) Calvin’s “predestination writings” do apply exactly to “the Bolsec controversy.” They started it. 2) It is Holtrop who repeatedly links the Bolsec episode with “the early developments of Reformed orthodoxy.” He has got to do better than this to excuse dodging Calvin’s extensive “documentation” of the Source of the doctrine.

And he seems aware of it. And he does make a kind of concession: “I acknowledge that there is something arbitrary about the light treatment I give them [the relevant treatises] in my present work” (p. 13). The right term is not “arbitrary,” but rather “evasive.” Why should a “scholar” have been satisfied with the “arbitrary”? Why go to press without its being resolved? Art is long; time will wait.

13. Might one now observe that: One cannot reap what he has not sown?

The reader now recalls that Holtrop never did establish what he is presumably researching, that is, what change in Calvin’s doctrine of predestination was wrought by his presumed desire to “kill” Bolsec? One need not, therefore, be surprised when the Holtrop Hypothesis finally runs aground. Listen: At the time of the Bolsec controversy, a number of political, psychological, social, and historical factors all converged to give shape to Calvin’s doctrine of predestination.” [Yes, that is his Hypothesis.] But then, this: “It is impossible to say to what extent he adjusted that doctrine to these consciously or subconsciously, and to what extent he thought that he was being biblical” (p.229).

Better read that again! In a thousand pages it is “impossible to say…!” What, then, is this thesis about, except to “document” his Hypothesis? “This significant advance in Calvin scholarship” wheezes at last to this terminal: “Impossible to say…” To say what? To say just what effect the factors in the Bolsec episode “all converged to give shape to Calvin’s doctrine of predestination”! Assertion, Yea! Proof, Nay! But, of course, we know why: How could Holtrop “say” just what effect each of the causes—“political, psychological, social and historical” had upon the formulation of the doctrine of predestination when he has yet to show that there were any changes at all? That was, as noted earlier, a fatal omission.

14. True, also, of Calvin?

But, the final assertion of this remarkable paragraph will not stand up even to passing scrutiny, namely Holtrop’s claim that it is “impossible to say to what extent he [Calvin]…thought that he was being biblical.”

Calvin knew to what extent he was Biblical; so did Dort. So do we, from the supporting texts quoted from his “congregation.” The “impossible” fits Holtrop, not Calvin.

15. One may wonder: Is there here an unannounced Agenda?

Holtrop’s sympathy for Bolsec’s contention that “the decisive drama of salvation takes place in history and not in ‘pretemporal’ eternity” (p. 72) is, like much else, frequently reiterated. And he has asked, coyly: “Can Reformed theologians reopen this matter for a biblical reevaluation? Or does Genevan orthodoxy still have the power to call that exercise ‘heretical’?” (p. 32).

Is this a scholarly, or a tenure question? Holtrop has here opened “this matter,” hasn’t he? And has been accoladed for a significant advance in charting new courses! And though “Genevan orthodoxy” did expel Bolsec, it seems now quietly to be snoozing in one of Calvin’s closets. Yes, it’s safe enough!

16. And what of Bolsec’s Viede Calvin?

The reader may recall that Calvin biographer Paul Henry was of the opinion that support of Bolsec deprives the “scholar” of “all credibility.” He apparently had most of all in mind, endorsement of Bolsec’s venomous Vie de Calvin.

Holtrop “analyzes” this publication in an appendix, pp. 786–796. Among other things, Bolsec charges Calvin with being: “a glutton and guzzler; an adulterer, fornicator, homosexual; rich and covetous; ambitious and presumptuous; possessed by haughty pride…” (p. 792).

Bolsec was driven to such scurrility, Holtrop avers, by Beza’s republication of his Life Of Calvin, which is, Holtrop tells us, a “product of horrendous biases” (p. 761). Beza looming, despite Holtrop, as one of the great figures of the Reformation, the reader interested in a first-hand view of one genius by another might well give his biography of Calvin thoughtful consideration.

In any case, Holtrop’s reaction to what most students of the period think a hardly mentionable farrago of hate is in accord with the prevailing tenor of his thesis: “Historians have been hard on Bolsec for his scunilous treatment of both Calvin and Beza. But they have not observed adequately that he was really playing a game of tit-for-tat. He is repaying his adversaries for what they did to him twenty-five years before. That does not ennoble his character-but it does make his actions explicable when we set them against the ignobility of those who wanted to kill him for his ‘heresies.’ It seems clear that Calvin and Beza wanted that penalty” (p. 787). Just how “clear,” we have already assessed.

But the real “tit-for-tat,” if such there be here, is as lost upon Holtropas he says it is upon other historians. The reader will note that the charges which Bolsec mounts against Calvin are, at least four of them, drawn from the list of those sins which, St. Paul says, preclude inheritance of the kingdom of God (I Cor. 6:9–10). If Calvin could shut him out of Geneva, Bolsec could at least declare Calvin shut out of heaven. Some “tit-for-tat”!

Holtrop’s last word: “In short, some of Bolsec’s criticisms were not as ill-founded as we might think. The bottom line is this: Even scurrility may have some validity” (p. 796).

Perhaps he ought to know!

Dr. Lester De Koster, now retired, served as Director of the Library, Calvin College and also as Editor in Chief of The Banner, the denominational publication of the Christian Reformed Church. Dr. Philip Holtrop, author of the book in question, is a minister in the Christian Reformed Church and Professor of Religion and Theology at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI.